Confidential Sources & Informants

There has been much in the news recently concerning the confidential sources and informants involved in current Federal on-going criminal and non-criminal investigations.  During the more complex of our examinations, we, as practicing fraud examiners and forensic accountants, can also expect to encounter the same types of sources and informants. Both sources and informants serve the same purpose, to provide information helpful in the development of a case. However, there are notable differences between confidential sources and confidential informants; the two terms should not be used interchangeably.

A confidential source furnishes information simply consequent on being a member of an occupation or profession and has no culpability in the alleged offense. For example, confidential sources might include barbers, attorneys, accountants, and law enforcement personnel. A confidential informant on the other hand has a direct or indirect involvement in the matter under investigation, and s/he might (incidentally) also be culpable. The distinction between the two sources is their involvement or noninvolvement in the offense. As every CFE knows, informants can pose treacherous legal issues for the fraud examiner.

There is no question that information provided by a well-placed informant can be invaluable to any case; secretly photographed or recorded conversations provided by an informant are the most convincing type of evidence. This information is generally viewed as something the use of which is sure to be successful for a criminal prosecutor, because there is little that a white-collar criminal can dispute when caught red-handed in the fraudulent act.

The ACFE identifies several types of informants with which a CFE might expect to become directly or indirectly involved: the basic lead, the participant, the covert, and the accomplice/witness.

—Basic Lead Informants. This type of informant supplies information to the investigator about illicit activities that they have encountered. The reasons that the informant decides to supply information are varied; some informants simply want to “do their part” to stop an unscrupulous activity, while others are interested in harming the criminals against whom they are informing. For instance, many informants in drug, prostitution, or illegal gambling endeavors are involved in those activities as well and intend to eliminate some of their competition. Whatever the reason, these informants’ only role in an investigation is to supply useful information.

—Participant informants.  The participant informant is directly involved in gathering preliminary evidence in the investigation. The informant in this instance not only supplies an investigation with information, but the informant is also involved in setting up a “sting” operation, initiating contact with the criminal for arrest purposes. A participant informant is just what the name suggests, a participant in the investigation of criminal activity.

—Covert informants. A covert informant also supplies information on criminal behavior to an investigator or to authorities. The difference between covert informants and other types of informants is that a covert informant is one who has been embedded in a situation or scenario for a period, sometimes for years, and is called upon only sporadically for newly uncovered information (i.e., tip-offs) and leads. These types of informants are often referred to as moles because of the nature of their insulated situation as inside sources. There are two instances in which covert informants are commonly used: in organized crime and in hate-extremist group investigations. Covert informants are often culled to get information about upcoming criminal activities by such groups.

—Accomplice/witness informants. The accomplice/witness informant is often called upon to provide information concerning criminal activity. Unlike other types of informants, the accomplice/witness informant seeks to avoid prosecution for an offense by providing investigators with helpful information. For example, the government might promise leniency if the accomplice/witness informant offers details about a co-conspirator.

There are three essential procedures for the investigator to keep in mind and follow when using sources and informants. First, strive to keep the informant’s identity as confidential as possible. Second, independently verify the information provided by the source or informant. Third, develop witness and documentary evidence from independently verified information. For example, an informant might indicate that an investigative target committed fraud. If the fraud examiner subsequently conducts an interview and gets a confession out of the target, the information is no longer dependent on the informant’s claim.

If the confidential source or informant has provided documents, names of potential witnesses, or other evidence, all reasonable steps must be taken to protect the identity of that source. Care should be taken to ensure that the questioning of other witnesses is done in a manner that does not reveal its origin. This can usually be accomplished by phrasing questions in a certain way. For example, Smith furnished confidential information about Jones, the co-owner of Jones Brothers Construction Company. When the fraud examiner confronts Jones, she does not want him to know that she has talked to Smith.

If necessary, in this example, the fraud examiner would display the evidence from witnesses and documents that would not reveal the source or informant’s identity. The information from the source or informant is basically useless unless the fraud examiner can verify its authenticity and independently corroborate it. Suppose a source furnishes the fraud examiner with copies of documents showing that Jones Brothers Construction Company’s building code violations dropped by 80 percent since a bribery arrangement allegedly began. This kind of evidence would corroborate the source’s story. If a source told the fraud examiner that Jones frequently had drinks with Walters, the city’s chief building inspector, the fraud examiner would want to find out some way to verify this information. Recall that the third objective when using sources is to develop the witness’s information and other evidence so that it makes a cohesive case.

Fraud examiners should make every effort to develop and cultivate a wide range of sources. Business and financial institution executives, law enforcement and other governmental personnel, medical and educational professionals, and internal and external auditors are always good contacts for practicing fraud examiners.

The fraud examiner should strive to make contacts in her community, well in advance of needing the information they can provide; my contacts on LinkedIn and in the Central Virginia ACFE Chapter have proven their investigative value again and again!  If the fraud examiner receives an allegation and needs confidential information, s/he might obtain assistance from a source cultivated earlier.  Additionally, we need sources to feel confident that they can share information with us without being compromised. In theory, the source will never have to testify; s/he has no firsthand knowledge. Firsthand information comes either from a witness or from a document.

The fraud examiner might also encounter new sources when tracking leads during a specific investigation. S/he might interview a stockbroker from whom the target purchased stock but who does not want his identity revealed. The fraud examiner shou1d not encourage a person to provide confidential information, but rather try to get verifying reports on the record. But if the fraud examiner promises confidentiality for a source’s information, she must abide by that promise.

The ACFE advises that active recruitment of informants is generally not desirable because doing so might appear unseemly to a jury. It is better to encourage an informant to come forward. It is also desirable to develop an informant relationship, but such relationships must be handled carefully. The fraud examiner must be careful to clearly document the adequate predication for an informant’s involvement. Generally, the most fundamental questions concerning informants will focus on the degree of their culpability or the lack of it. There have been cases where the informant is guiltier than the target; in such cases the court might rule that the informant’s information cannot be introduced.

Finally, it’s recommended that all contact with informants and-sources be reported on a memorandum, although the confidential source or informant’s identity should not be included in the report. Instead of including the source or informant’s identity, the fraud examiner should use symbols to denote the source’s identity. It is further recommended that sources be preceded with an “S,” followed by a unique identifier (i.e., source #1 would be “S-l”; source #2 would be “S-2”). The symbols for informants would then be “I-1” and “I-2.”

Generally, disclosure of the identities of sources and informants should be on a strict need to-know basis. For that reason, the person’s identity should be maintained in a secure file with limited access, and it should be cross-indexed by the source’s symbol number. The reliability of the source, if known, and whether the person can furnish relevant information should always be documented in writing.

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